Among the throng of self-driving startups making pronouncements at CES, high ambitions were in plentiful supply, but specific business plans were harder to find. Among those revealing previously secret intentions in Las Vegas, one company worth keeping an eye on is Steer, the first company to obtain an autonomous-vehicle testing permit in Maryland. While others focus on getting passengers from point A to point B, Steer is more concerned about what to do with cars after travelers arrive at their destinations.
The company’s engineers have created what they bill as the first fully autonomous parking technology. Far beyond some of the self-parking features on the market, Steer’s technology allows the cars to drop off their passengers and then navigate themselves to nearby lots or garages and park themselves. Imagine being dropped off curbside at a sporting event or shopping mall. When you’re ready to head home, simply summon the car via an app on your mobile device.
Many drivers struggle with their parallel-parking skills, while others resent spending valuable minutes searching for an empty parking spot. Steer’s idea is to use Level 4 automation to eliminate the cumbersome aspects of parking.
“Sometimes in urban settings it can take 15 or 20 minutes to park. This takes that burden off you to figure all that out.”
– Anuja Sonalker, Steer
“The reality in traveling today is that, once you get wherever you are going, your experience doesn’t start, because you still need to park your car,” said Anuja Sonalker, chief executive officer of Steer. “Sometimes in urban settings it can take 15 or 20 minutes to park. Or [you] don’t get to the train station and miss the train because [you’re] parking for another 14 minutes.” Steer’s technology “takes that burden off you to figure all that out. You just have to think, ‘The moment I get in front of Macy’s, my shopping experience begins.’ It’s a continuous, seamless experience for you.”
Steer is collaborating with Visteon, a global supplier of automotive electronics, to place its self-driving system on the company’s new autonomous-driving platform, which was also unveiled at CES. The partnership is not exclusive.
The linchpin to making Steer work may not lie in the self-driving system itself but in the company’s cloud-based repository of available parking options. Rather than undertake the laborious process of creating its own parking network, Steer is counting on restaurateurs, shop owners, and station managers to do it on their own so they can offer customers the convenience of autonomous parking. Using an assistant downloaded onto a smartphone, business proprietors can drive routes to nearby parking areas, and artificial intelligence baked into the technology will ensure it gets what it needs to run the route.
Sonalker said the Steer system is “proudly” lidar free; it operates using radar, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors. But Steer’s decision to forgo lidar is more a calculated business move than a choice based on philosophical opposition. Sonalker said she doesn’t want the OEMs her company works with to be required to commit to lidar on their vehicles—and she wants to work with them now, while they’re still sketching broader plans for their autonomous futures.
“We are solving a problem that has a long
shelf life, but we want to get to the market
sooner rather than later.”– Sonalker
“Ultimately that cost gets passed along to consumers, and they can only bear so much, so our approach is very cost-centric,” she said. “We’re adding no incremental costs for automakers or consumers. We are solving a problem that has a long shelf life, but we want to get to the market sooner rather than later, because the longer you wait in this autonomous field, [the bigger the chance that] decisions will get made where things get locked into plans.”
And with parking a problem that pesters ride-hailing services and car owners alike, autonomous-parking technology could help bridge the skepticism a majority of Americans say they have for automated vehicles.
“I know there are people who love to drive and don’t like the idea of autonomous technology, but I have yet to meet a person who loves to drive who says to me, ‘You know, I love parking the car,’ ” said Sonalker, whose previous automotive startup, TowerSec, was sold to Harman in 2016.
“People love to take their car for a spin, but I have yet to see someone who says, ‘I love parallel parking.’ That’s something to take away from a human.”